Apple’s China App Store throws video games, while Beijing tightens Internet controls

Apple Inc.

AAPL -0.70%

launches thousands of video game apps from its platform in China as the government squeezes down more on such content, illustrating the tech giant’s vulnerability to state pressure on its business.

The iPhone maker warned Chinese developers this month that a new wave of paid gaming apps could be removed from its app store, according to a note seen by The Wall Street Journal after the company removed thousands of such apps earlier this year .

The Chinese government four years ago began demanding that video games be licensed before they were released, but developers were able to override the requirement in Apple’s app store. Apple has not said why the loophole existed or why the company started closing it this year. Foreign software developers regret the change and cite difficulties in securing approval in China for their games.

The app store cleansing comes as China has intensified efforts to police the internet, tight content control and censorship, including a demand that Tripadvisor and more than 100 other apps be removed from the Apple store in the country. The Cyberspace Administration of China called apps illegal without spelling the offenses Tripadvisor or the other apps, most of which are from Chinese developers, had committed. Tripadvisor declined to comment.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates cyber security, and the National Radio and Television Administration, which approves video games, did not respond to requests for comment.

In China, the study of Apple’s app store highlights the delicate balance that Cupertino, a California-based company must strike as it works to reach Chinese consumers while navigating official requirements.

Earlier this month, Apple told developers in a note that premium games and those with in-app purchases had until Dec. 31 to submit proof of a state license.

“Only a small fraction of these games will actually be able to get a license, as far as we can see,” said Rich Bishop, CEO of ChinaInApp, which works with Western companies to get their apps into China.

Trade tensions between China and the United States and other countries have made it harder to get those licenses, he said.

Apple had 272,000 games in its China App Store last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks app business globally. By 2020, it has found at least 94,000 removals from the Chinese store, well in excess of the 25,000 gaming apps taken down last year.

While the full extent of software cleansing is still unclear, it appears that revenue growth from games in Apple’s China store has slowed, although the segment has increased its pace globally. Sensor Tower estimates that gaming revenue in China this year to November had increased by 14% to $ 13 billion. This is comparable to a 21% increase in China over the same period in 2019 and a 26% increase globally this year.

Apple’s app store has caught fire in various parts of the world. It faces accusations from rivals of anti-competitive behavior – which Apple has denied – and regulatory control in the US and Europe.

‘This veil of secrecy surrounding why they are removing this information is what makes it even more worrying.’

– Katie Paul, from Campaign for Accountability

Critics have questioned Apple’s decision to comply with some of China’s demands, saying it violates CEO Tim Cook’s stated desire to stand for freedom of expression, privacy and human rights.

New research from the Campaign for Accountability, an advocacy group in Washington, DC, identified more than 3,000 apps not found in the China App Store but displayed in other countries. The group, whose main supporters include David Magerman, the George Soros Open Society Foundations and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, has fought against big technology companies like Google and Apple.

Nearly a third of the apps that were from Apple’s China Store were related to what the legal team considered “hot button human rights” topics, such as Tibetan Buddhism, protests in Hong Kong, and gay or transgender rights or themes, while 5% engaged in pornography. or gambling. Another great piece was games.

“If it’s going to succumb to political pressure, the company should explain why and what they would lose if they did not,” said Katie Paul, director of the campaign’s Tech Transparency Project. “This veil of secrecy surrounding why they are removing this information is what makes it even more worrying.”

She acknowledged that the difference in Apple’s offerings in China could be due in part to developers actually censoring themselves and knowing their chances of approval in the country.

Apple faces reprimands from two sides: from Chinese state media for not doing enough to filter out banned content and complaints from outside mainland China that they are bowing to censorship. The company has said it complies with local laws.

In a statement Monday, Apple reiterated that its app stores are subject to local regulations and sometimes field requests to remove certain apps.

“Apple studies these requests carefully when we receive them, and we dispute and often disagree with them,” a company spokesman said. “While the final decisions sometimes conflict with our wishes, we believe our customers are best served when we remain in the country, giving them access to products that promote self-expression with world-class privacy protection.”

Apple as well as Google removed apps linked to Hong Kong’s protests against the government, including a publicly available map service that tracks police activity. The People’s Daily newspaper, run by the Chinese Communist Party, had called the app “toxic software.”

Apple said the card app violated guidelines and local laws, and Mr. Cook defended the company’s actions in a note to staff, noting the difficulties involved. “National and international debates survive us all, and while important, they do not control the facts,” he wrote. “We believe this decision best protects our users.”

In its latest release reports, Apple said it received 103 requests from Chinese authorities last year to remove 399 apps for offenses, the majority of which were related to pornography and illegal content. Apple said it complied with most of those requests and pulled 381 apps down. In addition, in response to government requests, Apple said it took down 129 apps during that period in China for so-called platform violations, such as illegal gaming.

Write to Tim Higgins at [email protected]

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